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Unquiet. The Life and Times of Makhan Singh

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    Book Review

    Kenya: TheMan who Refused to Keep Quiet

    by Mwangi Githahu

    Unquiet:The Life and Times of Makhan Singh is published in March 2006 by Awaaz in collaboration with the Kenya Human Rights Commission. Itis available at Sh1,200 at Simple Books at ABC shopping centre on Nairobi's Waiyaki Way andalso at the KHRC offices, which can be reached at 3874998/9 or 3876065/6

    When people speak of Kenyan freedom struggle, they are most likely to mention the Mau Mauand the Kapenguria Six - Jomo Kenyatta, Achieng' Oneko, Paul Ngei, Fred Kubai, Bildad Kaggia and Kungu Karumba. They will no doubt mention Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Tom Mboya and even Daniel Arap Moi. Few, if any, will recall the massive contribution to the independence struggle made by the trade union movement and one pioneer trade unionist in particular, Makhan Singh (1913 Gharjakh, Gujranwala - 1973 Nairobi).

    Fewer still will be able to tell you that when the Kapenguria Six started serving their seven-year term in detention, they found Makhan Singh already in jail. And when they were freed in August 1961, Makhan was still in the in hospitable area of Dol Dol under restriction for almost another year.

    When people talk about the Indian or South Asian contribution to Kenya, they are most likely to speak of the building of the Uganda Railway and commercial life.

    When they speakof commercial life, many Kenyans will then get on a tirade about how"Asians control the economy and are corrupt" and then drop the namesof certain young businessmen to illustrate their point.

    Few, if any, modern Kenyans will recall members of the South Asian community such as Makhan Singh, Isher Dass, Pranlal Sheth, Ambu Patel, Manilal Desai, AR Kapila, FRS DeSouza, Pio Gama Pinto, Chunilal B Madan and others who made huge sacrifices and personal contributions to the struggle for independence.

    With the launchof her biography of Makhan Singh a week ago, Zarina Patel - writer, artist, human rights activist and one of the foremost experts on Kenyan South Asian history - took a significant step towards righting this wrong that has for toolong been visited on Kenya's South Asian community.

    In the foreword, Steve Ouma and Makau Mutua of the Kenya Human Rights Commission describe Makhan Singh and his mission and vision quite eloquently: "Makhan Singh is among a select pantheon of Indian settlers who not only made Africa home but also became leading anti-colonial freedom fighters."

    But what distinguished Makhan Singh from many legendary leaders - including even thegreat Mahatma Gandhi - was that he went out of his way to bring together all the races in his politics.

    He refused toaccept a trade union movement segregated by race and poisoned by the colonial apartheid that classified black Africans and Asians in a humiliating hierarchy.

    He demonstrated, for the first time in colonised Kenya, that Asians and black Africans were bound by the same fate and that their liberation was inextricably linked.

    This is a challenge to all communities that make up Kenya, not just Kenyan South Asians, to come together and see what unites them rather than what separates them and work together for a truly proper multi-racial and multi-cultural future.

    Zarina Patel: the biographer

    Unquiet: The Life and Times of Makhan Singh is the story of one of Kenya's great unsung heroes who was about to fade from the national collective memory despite having been instrumental in the setting up of the Kenyan trade union movement.

    Indeed, Makhan Singh was already a forgotten man by the time he died of a heart attack in 1973 aged only 59. Says Patel: "Friends, relatives and workers and a handful of trade unionists attended the funeral; there was no official government recognition of the passing of this great Kenyan patriot."

    This quiet, unassuming man had a will of steel and a mission to fight for social justicefor all Kenyans irrespective of colour, tribe, race, creed or religion.

    Patel adds:"Makhan Singh crossed the race barriers and brought together African and Asian workers on a common platform. This was British colonialism's worstnightmare - the fusion of Indian political experience and the African mass struggle. So they detained him, first in India,then in Kenya's Northern Frontier District, for a total of almost 15 years. They offered to release him on condition he left Kenya forever but Makhan Singh would not hear of it. Once, when his lawyers appealed for his release and, in order to elicit a favourable response, in their petition termed him as 'this misguided man', Makhan Singh objected strongly and retorted that it was not him, but the colonialists, who were misguided. His advocate, CB Madan, later Chief Justice of Kenya, said in his eulogy that it was kind of him not to call his lawyer misguided."

    Makhan Singh had no problem being called a Communist, or a Marxist, or a Leftist, or a Kenyan.

    He fought for independence, suffered in the struggle and sacrificed all he had, including his family life and comforts, to see Kenya free from colonialism. At the end of it all, not only was he not properly recognised by his erstwhile comrades-in-arms, he was also to be sorely disappointed when many of these people came to power and forgot what the struggle had been all about.

    As Patel said at the book launch: "Makhan Singh would not dance, he would only march,and soon he was out of step with the post-independence leaders. He was not alone. Pio Gama Pinto was assassinated, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga was detained, Pranlal Sheth was deported and many other great stalwarts, including Bildad Kaggia, were sidelined. The calls for land reform, fairer distribution of wealth and democracy for the majority did not sit well with the neo-colonial regime which had grabbed 'independence'."

    Makhan Singh may have faded from the national consciousness into near oblivion after Independence, but he did not completely go away.

    He joined theHistorical Association of Kenya and, with the help of old comrades such as Fred Kubai, Bildad Kaggia, Dennis Akumu, Bethwell Ogot and others, he wrote a detailed history of Kenya'strade union movement up to 1956.

    Never once did he express any bitterness or even criticism, despite the fact that the Kenyatta regime not only sidelined him, it harassed him. Promises were made, only to be reneged upon: Voice of Kenya requested him to write a script of Jomo Kenyatta'slife for a series of 15 broadcasts. From 25 March 1966 to 17 April 1967, Makhan Singh made 62 phone calls and 31 visits only to be finally told that his scriptshad been lost.

    "His son Hindpal tells me that he urged his father not to pursue the matter - the fact that Makhan Singh not only persisted but noted the date and time of every calland visit is evidence, I think, of his determination to have Kenya's neocolonialists exposed someday," says Patel.

    Zarina Patelborrowed the words of another writer when she said at the launch: "MakhanSingh could have amassed a fortune, instead he chose to ride buses. Whether it was the colonialists, his family or the comprador leaders of the day, they could not prevail upon him. He could not have been an easy person to live with and yet he inspired, and continues to inspire, thousands if not millions of'the wretched of the earth'."

    This is not a book review, but I will say that if you want to know just a little bit more about why Kenyawas, however briefly, the original Rainbow nation before the South Africans came along with their great public relations coup in the wonderfully gloriousNelson Mandela, reading this book could set you on your way.

    At the booklaunch, attended by Makhan's son Hindpal Singh Jabbal and his family as well as friends, associates and admirers of the great man, there was a 24-minute documentary film that gave a further insight into Makhan Singh's life and how he was seen by others.

    Zarina Patelspent over five years researching material for the 563-page book. She had tremendous difficulties getting leads into the man's life and work."Everyone I spoke to would say 'Great man! What a sacrifice!' and that would be the end of the matter. His two books had every detail about the trade union movement but nothing at all about himself. Even the family had very scantinsight into his daily life and thoughts. I almost gave up the project.

    "And thenin the library of the University of Nairobi I came across the name of George Gona. He is a lecturer based in the History Department and specialises in the labour movement. As a last resort, I met with him. Dr Gonaled me to the Makhan Singh papers stored in 25 boxes in the University Archives. I had found a gold mine!"

    He noted notjust the date he received a letter but even the time of the day. He labouriously hand copied the minutes, correspondence, press briefings, and reports of Cotu from its inception in 1965 to the early 1970s.

    Patel adds:"Makhan Singh was truly a most remarkable man - he ranks among Africa 's great leaders. Born in the revolutionary Punjab of the Indian sub-continent, he imbibed the angeragainst British injustice and learnt the scientific bases of exploitation and racial oppression."

    He was a man totally given to the cause of the worker in Kenya . Aged 14 when he came from India to Kenyato join his father, Makhan attended the present-day Jamhuri High School.A brilliant student, he graduated in 1933, but the family could not afford to continue his education.

    So he joined his father's Khalsa Printing Press in Nairobi.It was here and from the African workers that Makhan Singh learnt the effects of colonialism on the Kenyan people.

    Meanwhile, Indian workers were then organising labour protests, but it was on and off - until in1936. When he was barely 23, they appointed Makhan Singh the secretary of the Indian Labour Trade Union. He took it on knowing full well that it was a purely voluntary job.

    Patel puts i tthis way: "Makhan Singh never looked back, and never earned a cent, leave alone shillings and pounds. He dedicated his life to establishing tradeunionism in Kenyaand linked the movement to the struggle for freedom. His entire living, being and thinking were focused on these goals and no-one, but no-one, could deflect him from his chosen path."

    MakhanSingh addressing a workers' rally. Mombasa.9 September 1962

    Said she:"I would like to see Makhan Singh's home in Park Road (Nairobi) preserved and rehabilitated into a library, archive and research centre for labour and trade union relateds ubjects. He deserves to have a major road named after him, not just the lane opposite Jamhuri High School. What could be more apt than renaming Park Road Makhan Singh Road?"

    Patel, who isone of the founders of Awaazmagazine, says the magazine had organised the Makhan Singh Memorial Lecture last Monday in what they hope will be a series. Patel also announced that the Makhan Singh Memorial Trust was being formed and this body would then be expected to drive "these and other projects."

    [Abridged version. Courtesy: The Nation, Nairobi.25 March 2006]

    Unquiet: A tribute to the founder of Kenya’s trade union movement
    Steve Ouma and Makau Mutua (2006-03-30)

    Makhan Singh is considered the father of the trade union movement in Kenya. In 1935, he formed the Labour Trade Union of Kenya, and in 1949, the East African Trade Union Congress. In this article, a foreword to ‘Unquiet: The Life and Times of Makhan Singh’ by Zarina Patel, Steve Ouma and Makau Mutua remember Singh and what his life means for present-day political life in Kenya.

    Makhan Singh is among a select pantheon of Indian settlers who not only made Africa home but also became leading anti-colonial freedom fighters. But what distinguished Singh from many legendary leaders – including even the great Mahatma Gandhi – was the conscious multiracialism of his politics. He refused to accept a trade union movement segregated by race and poisoned by the colonial apartheid that classified black Africans and Asians in a humiliating hierarchy. He demonstrated for the first time in colonized Kenya that Asians and black Africans were bound in the same fate and that their liberation was inextricably linked. In this powerful example, he properly argued that both colonialism and imperialism were the enemies of the people. That is why Singh’s enduring legacy to Kenya must continue to be the basis for construction of a society free of exploitation and racial animus.

    Singh’s political work in the trade union movement was a response to the repressive colonial state generally, and the labor law regime in particulars. Under the colonial state – and its post-colonial successor – Kenya was imprisoned in labor laws that were designed to cheapen and exploit so-calledthe labour from the natives labor. This was the trend worldwide in the relationship between labor and capital. No wonder workers have been at the forefront of the human rights struggle over the centuries. This epic biography of Singh demonstrates how the struggle for the rights of workers was planted in Kenya. In it, Zarina Patel, an indefatigable Kenyan freedom fighter herself, has comprehensively analyzed how Singh created the building blocks and pillars of the trade union movement in Kenya.At the

    The life of Makhan Singh is an object lesson on how class formation developed in Kenya. It is a powerful example of worker s solidarity based on both racial and class-consciousness. Even though Asians were economically stratified, the colonial state still considered them a single class. ButR realizing that the trade union by 1937 was still an exclusive Asian affair, Singh went set out to involve African workers in the labor movement. The African workers had organized isolated strikes in the past but Singh managed to convince them that a united non-racial approach was essential if the workers were to succeed in their demands. The cClass-consciousness was crucial in galvanizing and consolidating the struggle by labor against capital. In fact, Singh made trade unions very so formidable that the colonial administration devised ways to undermine and curtail their influence and powerregulating . For example, Ordinance No. 35 of 1939 required that all crafts organizations apply for registration that could be denied unless their dealings were considered “legitimate” by the state. Cancellation of registration under the ordinance was not subject to judicial review or appeal in a court of law.

    Singh led workers to assert their right to strike, a key achievement in the struggle for labor and human rightsthe . By organizing and mobilizing workers to strike, Singh not only ensured the implementation of a cardinal right but also legitimized the right of workers to withdraw their labor as a of bargaining tooling. This effort contributed to ensuring full and universal respect for trade union rights in their broadest sense. This struggle and legacy reaffirmed that strike action s areis the most important and fundamental tool that the workers have against capital. Even so, the rigid control of trade unions that was maintained by the colonial colonial government persists to this dayuntil the end. Industrial confrontation arose not merely from traditional trade union activities, but also from the movement’s political role in the struggle for freedom from colonial domination, particularly after individual political leaders had been arrested and detained. This notwithstanding, the movement was able to grow both in numerical strength and power. That is how workers became the lone African voice in the colonial wilderness, challenging white supremacy, demanding independence, and defending the interests of the workers.

    The legacy of Makhan Singh points to the centrality of trade unions as one of the major epicenters of democracy. Singh sought thatwanted workers to get organized on theirboth practical and strategic issues. The practical issues varied from housing, wages, working conditions, health, and and safety, among others. HoweverStrategically, he was conscious of the fact that political andcolonialism and crude capitalism were the key foundations for the privation of workers. imperialism That is why in 1950, Singh proposed a resolution urging complete independence and sovereignty of the East African territories as the only viable solution to suffering of the people. a legacy In tThis biography challenges, the trade unions in Kenya today. It should receive the challenge the awakening that forreminds workers that they must control and be central to the trade union movement if it is to succeed.organizing Indeed one of the major challenges toproblems in the trade Union union movement today is the chasm between the leadership of the trade union movement and the workers. Most unions are lead by individuals and oligarchicy groups whom which do not share the interests or the vision of the workers. This augurs very poorly for the future of democracy in Kenya. constitutions Kenyan workers must overthrow bumbling, corrupt, and compromised leaders if the legacy of Singh is to be kept alive.

    Finally, we would like to congratulate Zarina Patel for her illuminating work on this towering Kenyan patriot. We know that writing a good book is a daunting task. But we believe that Patel has risen to this enormous challenge and written an account for the ages. This wonderful account also reminds us why it is critically important for Asians and Africans to tell their own stories. This is a book that every Kenyan – and particularly those still in school – must read.

    * Steve Ouma is Deputy Executive Director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission; Makau Mutua is Chair of the Kenya Human Rights Commission.

    * This article is the foreword to ‘Unquiet: The Life and Times of Makhan Singh’, by Zarina Patel, Nairobi: Awaaz, 2006. For further details, contact Awaaz Magazine, P O Box 32843 00600, Nairobi, Tel: 0722 344900, 0733 741085, Alternative email: (at)

    * Please send comments to

    ‘This wonderful account…reminds us why it is critically important for Asians and Africans to tell their own stories.’ – Kenya Human Rights Commission

    Published by Zand Graphics, Kenya
    North American Distribution
    586 pp., 6.00" x 9.00", August 2006

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